Tagged: Rock&Roll

The New Yardbirds

After a lackluster year, blues rock legends and psychedelic rock pioneers The Yardbirds needed a change. Their last album was a dud, and they had been coasting on the release of their Greatest Hits album for most of 1967 and 1968. They hardly played their new stuff live. In fact, they hardly played any of their songs as they were produced, just mostly mixes and long solos. Moreover, former Yardbirds’ members Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton were becoming bigger than the band that spawned them: The Jeff Beck Group, with front man Rod Stewart on vocals, had finally broken big in the summer of ‘68, and Eric Clapton’s supergroup Cream ruled the charts. Vocalist Keith Reif and drummer Joe McCarty wanted to move in a folk rock direction, while guitarist Jimmy Page wanted to continue to experiment with the heavy psychedelic blues that was so popular with Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Bassist Chris Dreja didn’t give a shit either way, at this point he was more interested in being a rock photographer. Session bassist John Paul Jones, who was a longtime collaborator of Page’s from his own session days, played in Dreja’s stead more often than not, sometimes even live.
 
The Yardbirds played their final show just outside London in July 1968, and then Reif and McCarty permanently departed the band. However, the Yardbirds still had a contract to perform a Scandinavian Tour. Dreja and Page saw an opportunity to form a new band and the tour would quickly get them noticed, but they had to keep the name “Yardbirds” because the promotional materials were already published and distributed.
 
The Yardbirds quickly found a replacement for Reif but their chosen young vocalist couldn’t break his previous contract to make the tour. However, he did recommend Page go see the band Obs-Tweedle then performing in Birmingham. Page obliged, and after just one song (Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”) offered the 19 year old front man Robert Plant the job for the Yardbirds. Plant immediately accepted and recommended his childhood friend John Bonham as replacement drummer for McCarty. With the fast pace of the changes, Dreja decided to leave to pursue his career in photography. John Paul Jones, practically a member of the band anyway, quickly stepped into the vacancy.
 
The New Yardbirds played their first gig on 7 September 1968 at Egegård School in Gladsaxe, Denmark, a suburb of Copenhagen. The new band had barely played together before and rehearsed all morning and afternoon in preparation. That night was the school’s “Teen Club Ball” and almost 1400 people were in attendance. The young audience was not happy. They had bought tickets to see the legendary Yardbirds and were upset to find out that only Page was still in the lineup. Nonetheless, the New Yardbirds quickly won over the skeptical crowd. The Teen Club Ball in Gladsaxe Denmark was the first time Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham played together on stage in front of an audience.
 
The New Yardbirds recorded their first album later in the month based on their live performances from the tour. The album never happened. Although Dreja was OK with the band using the “Yardbirds” name to finish the Scandinavian tour, he was not cool with them recording new music, unless of course he got a cut. The New Yardbirds needed a new name.
 
So when the band completed their Scandinavian tour in October, they decided to make a clean break with their Yardbirds’ past. Two year’s previously, Page and The Who’s Keith Moon toyed with the idea of forming their own supergroup to rival Clapton’s Cream. The Who’s John Entwhistle said the band would go down “like a lead balloon”. The conversation stuck with Page. The “a” in “lead” was dropped for pronunciation purposes, and “balloon” was changed to “zeppelin” to presage the “lightness”, “heaviness” and “combustibility” of the new group’s sound.
 
Led Zeppelin was born.

At Folsom Prison

Johnny Cash’s first big hit was “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955 and he went on to be one of the biggest names in Country music, and Rock and Roll, for the next ten years. But by the late 60s Cash’s career was on the slippery down slope. He was having an open affair with fellow performer June Carter. He was addicted to pain killers and had been arrested for trespassing and drug trafficking. He was the worst sort of live performer who routinely missed concert dates, and because of his addiction was usually too bombed out of his mind to perform when he didn’t miss. His outlaw persona was catching up with him. By the end of 1967, he was one failed album away from just becoming another casualty to the Rock and Roll lifestyle.

He earlier decided to record a live album at the prison whose name launched his career, Folsom County Prison just outside Sacramento, California. Cash had played prisons before, and had even played Folsom before, but this would be the first time he’d record a live album while doing so. This would also be the first time he would be sober for the performance. On New Year’s 1968, Cash vowed to turn his life around, if only for June and his children’s sakes. And “At Folsom Prison” would be his comeback, both professionally and personally.

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”. With these words, two thousand hardened inmates of Folsom County Prison jumped up to wild applause as if they were high school kids at the year’s big concert event. Cash’s clean and sober performance was his best in years. Cash ended the performance by unexpectedly playing a song “Greystone Chapel”, written by one of the inmates.
Only two reporters accompanied Cash inside the prison to cover the event because most of the media had already dismissed Cash as a has-been, and one of whom was hired by Cash to document the event for the album sleeve. They witnessed the rebirth of a star and they’re still receiving royalties for their photographs to this day. At Folsom Prison is easily Cash’s best live performance and arguably one of the best live albums ever.

At Folsom Prison was released just four months later and resurrected Johnny Cash’s career. The clean and sober Johnny Cash learned to cultivate his outlaw status without it killing him. He would eventually divorce his wife and marry June Carter. Cash would become a leading advocate for prison reform in the United States and eventually testify to Congress in 1978.

The Monterey Pop Festival

America temporarily lost its greatest invention, Rock and Roll, when Elvis Presley left for the Army and the Day the Music Died in a cornfield in Iowa. But the generation that didn’t remember the horrors and sacrifices of their parents’ generation during the Great Depression and the Second World War, the Baby Boomers, were coming of age. Primed by Chubby Checker and Motown, the Big Bang that was the British Invasion reminded America of what it had lost: Rock and Roll, the music that changed a generation.

By the late sixties, the Vietnam War had reached a fever pitch and tens of thousands of young men were drafted at random every month. Without knowing whether they were going to be drafted, with the possibility of returning home in a metal coffin as hundreds were by 1967, Rock and Roll was first an escape, then a cultural force unequaled so far in American history.

In early 1967, music promoters in Monterey, California wanted to capitalize on this phenomenon. They wanted to do for Rock and Roll what they did for Jazz with the Monterey Jazz Festival: bring together the best acts in the country to a single venue. This had never been done before on this scale. In 1965 and 66, Rock and Roll occupied that holy trifecta of the music industry: it was the best written and most creative music, it was the most popular, and you could dance to it. Furthermore, by having it in the same venue as the respected jazz and folk festivals, it would legitimize Rock and Roll as a serious musical genre.

The first act the Monterey Pop Festival promoters contacted was biggest live band of 1966, The Mamas and the Papas. However, the Jazz template was barely large enough for them, much less the who’s who of Rock and Roll that were on the list to be invited. The Mamas and the Papas’ producers and managers expanded the scope of the festival, spread the performances over three days, and then got about the business of herding the eclectic group of the biggest names in Music to Monterey.

The response was unheard of and the heavy advertising meant fans of all kinds began to arrive. By early June, 1967, the original promoters and the city of Monterey began to get cold feet. The Age of Psychedelia was upon America and the Summer of Love was all around. The hippies of San Francisco were descending upon the city in ever increasing numbers for the festival. The city commissioned a song, “San Francisco”, (you know, the one with the silly line, “…gentle people with flowers in their hair…”) to be used in a commercial to remind the festival goers that violence, squalor, and vandalism does not equal peace, love, and harmony. That public service announcement would become one on the biggest hits of the year (San Francisco was a big hit with many Vietnam vets: San Francisco was the first stop on the return trip back from Vietnam) The advertising campaign worked and the police and security found themselves wielding bouquets not batons.

On 16, 17, and 18 June 1967, almost a hundred thousand spectators arrived to listen to and watch the best live Rock and Roll bands in the world. The Monterey Pop Festival immediately revolutionized the industry and became the template for every music festival since. Without it there would be no Coachella, no Woodstock, no Lollapalooza, or no Punk Rock Bowling. Monterey wasn’t the first music festival, but it was the first filmed and the resulting documentary made it the standard. Careers were launched based on their performances and many would go on to be household names, while some bands would fade into obscurity after cracking under the cultural pressure. Many performers would cement their place in Rock and Roll history with their performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.

Of the thirty or so bands that played, including Eric Burdon and the Animals, The Byrds, and The Grateful Dead, five acts in particular stood out.

The first and possibly the biggest surprise was Janis Joplin of Big Brother and the Holding Company. “She didn’t just sing with her voice; she sang with her whole body” commented a newspaper review. After just one song, The Mamas and the Papas, watching in the audience, knew they were no longer the biggest act on the West Coast.

The next was Otis Redding. Unlike today, Rock and Roll was a unifying force with artists either consciously or unconsciously introducing their culture to their audiences, no matter the color of any of their skins. Otis Redding just moved from gospel music to R&B and his appearance was his “coming out”. He stunned the crowd and sang with such soulfulness, that it was as if he knew he wouldn’t last the year.

The third act to steal the show were the British invasion late arrivals, The Who. Though Pete Townsend and Keith Moon had been destroying their instruments for years in Britain, Pete’s first smashed guitar in America sent shock waves though the audience, and catapulted The Who to instant superstardom.

Another shocker was Jimi Hendrix who electrified the audiences with his guitar. At the end of his set, Jimi doused his guitar in lighter fluid, and set it on fire. He then got down his hands and knees and worshiped the flaming instrument like a pagan god – the High Priest of Rock and Roll in front of a hundred thousand disciples.

The last act to steal the show was not at all pleased with Hendrix’ theatrics. The 47 year old Master Sitarist Ravi Shankar was appalled at the flaming guitar and saw it as a desecration. The former court musician of the Indian Raj was the most unlikely Rock and Roll star; nonetheless, Shankar stole the show and held the audience enraptured. His music is most associated with the mind expanding psychedelia of the time, but at the festival, he did the unthinkable: asked the audience to stop doing drugs, implying that they couldn’t truly appreciate the music while high. And they did, at least for a bit.

Ravi Shankar’s presence at the Monterey Pop Festival highlighted the fact that the biggest band on the planet, the Beatles, were not actually playing live at the festival. He had almost single handedly invented World Music after taking the Beatles’ George Harrison as a pupil, and their absence was noticeable. The Beatles were there: high as kites and partying three days straight, but they never got on stage.

By late 1966, the Beatles were the best studio musicians in the business, bar none. They wrote the most innovative, most creative, most technically difficult music heard in generations. But that creativity came at a price: it sounded like shit on stage.

Many of their latest songs required facilities and back up only found in a studio. There was no place for an accompanying orchestra on a stage. These were the days of Eleanor Rigby and Sgt Pepper, not a Hard Days’ Night and I Want To Hold Your Hand. Their recently released Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band was, and is, the greatest studio album ever released and will continue to be so until we invent new musical instruments or aliens give them to us, and even then we’ll have our work cut out for us. But as great as Sgt Pepper is, it couldn’t be played on stage, at least not in 1967 nor could their previous two albums.

By then the Beatles hadn’t played live for some time. Sgt Pepper was written specifically because they knew if they got on that stage at Monterey their mystique would be ruined. They decided to ditch the limitations and showmanship of the stage, for the expansive creativity of the studio and the business of selling records. The chose the science of the studio over the art of entertainment. They needed a studio album to compete with the Festival and to remind everyone they existed even though they weren’t on stage in the biggest rock concert of the century. Sgt Pepper was the first Pop album.

Popular music is a fiscal contract between a producer of a popular product in the most convenient media format and a consumer who is the best judge of the various merits of that product. Rock and Roll is a social contact between band and fan separated only by bright lights, stacks of speakers, and an elevated dais. Sgt Pepper and the Monterey Pop Festival created an irrevocable and irreparable divide in music. The bands that played Monterey influenced the development of rock and roll and its countless sub genres. The disciples of the mastery of Sgt Pepper, who didn’t or couldn’t play at Monterey, mostly because their studio albums couldn’t be replicated on stage, influenced pop.

The Monterey Pop Festival is the seminal event in the history of Rock and Roll: everything that came before it led to it, and everything’s that came after it was because of it

Light My Fire

In late 1966, The Doors were an opening band at the Whiskey A Go Go for bigger LA acts such as the Byrds and Them (with a young Van Morrison). In January 1967, they released their self titled debut album, but it really didn’t go anywhere due to suggestive and “obscene” lyrics, drug references , and song length. But the album was a hit with the counterculture movement and the underground psychedelic scene. Their first single release off the album, “Break On Through” was a flop (!??!?!?) but the much longer “Light My Fire” kept getting radio airplay requests. However, at 7:06, it was far too long to play over the radio.

On 3 June 1967, The Doors released a shortened three minute version for use on the radio. This shorter version of Light My Fire catapulted The Doors onto the national music scene. They’d be asked to play the song on the Ed Sullivan show with adjusted lyrics for “girl, we couldn’t get much higher” The Doors agreed and even rehearsed the new line. But when the time came, Jim Morrison sang the original line on national TV, and after the show lost their contract with the producers. The Doors didn’t care – They “did Sullivan”. Light My Fire dominated the summer of 1967, the “Summer of Love”.

Paranoid

Like every other rock band during the British Invasion era, the band “Earth” started as a blues tribute garage rock band. But after being double booked with another band of the same name, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Ozzy Ozbourne decided to change their name to “Black Sabbath” after the Boris Karlov flick that was playing across the street from one of their rehearsals.
Black Sabbath released their eponymous debut album in early 1970. It was a commercial success but critics hated it. BS found their niche in the darker themes reminiscent of Karlov’s movies and “stupid melodies” that were quite different than the flower power and hippie music that dominated the charts. In the fall of 1970, Black Sabbath went back to the studio to record the songs that they didn’t get a chance to for their first album.

They had just two days to record and one to mix. At the end of the second day, their album “War Pigs” was finished. However, their producer said they needed another three minutes of music. Iommi quickly came up with a riff, Ozbourne some angsty and depressing lyrics, and Butler called it “Paranoid”, which Ozbourne replied, “What the f**k does that even mean?” “Paranoid” took 25 minutes to record from request to final cut.

With the “counter culture” mainstream, Black Sabbath didn’t want the anti Vietnam song War Pigs to headline the album lest it get lost in all of the other aforementioned flower power music on the charts. They decided to name it after the shortest song on the album and the one most likely to get radio time: the afterthought, Paranoid.

Paranoid released in Oct 1970 in the UK, but it’s the release in the US on 7 January 1971 that changed the world. Like before, critics hated it, and it received near zero radio time. But the generation of resentful kids who were just then coming of age and beginning to realize they missed the crazy days of the swinging late sixties that their big brothers and sisters experienced, absolutely loved it. Most of the combat troops left Vietnam, the draft was winding down, and the economy began to stagnate, so what did it all mean? The world of Paranoid provided a glimpse of the answer. (And it helped that the songs were simple to enough to inspire a new generation of band members to pick up instruments and emulate them.)

Most of Black Sabbath’s signature songs appeared on the album. These included Paranoid, War Pigs, and one fantastical story of a future traveller who saw the end of the world but was turned to metal by a magnetic field on his return. The Iron Man then brought about the very apocalypse he warned against when his people wouldn’t believe him.

And Heavy Metal was born. \m/